If we, in fact, live in the darkest timeline, we’d be faced with not one, not two, but maybe three or four sequels to Tim Burton’s ill-conceived, poorly-received Planet of the Apes remake. But 20th Century Fox – or rather the executives who ran Fox 16 years ago – decided against continuing the series and went for a new, fresh start that took the better part of a decade to realize. But when Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in multiplexes seven years ago, it was not just the exception to the Hollywood rule (all remakes are bad, all reboots are questionable, at best), but it was truly exceptional too.
Rise mixed then cutting-edge visual effects technology, a cautionary tale about not messing with Mother Nature because she might mess back – not to mention treat our simian relatives with dignity, respect, and compassion or they might remember when they take over the world – and a strongly written superhero origin story minus the capes and tights, plus the primate fur and machine guns.
Three years ago, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes split the focus almost evenly between the dwindling human survivors of the Simian Flu and the ascendant, super-intelligent apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). A leader of apes, if not men, Caesar struggled to protect his mixed-ape tribe from internal dissension, Caesar’s anti-human second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), and his desire for peaceful existence with the wary, distrusting human survivors. Koba both lost and won: He lost the struggle to lead the apes and permanently defeat the human survivors and won when his actions led to the end of the fragile truce between the species. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ended on a cliffhanger: News of military forces headed for the apes’ home in Muir Woods (Northern California, in case you’re wondering).
War for the Planet of the Apes picks up roughly two years later, with Caesar and his loyal band of mixed apes living in seemingly perfect harmony under his stewardship, but perpetually prepared for armed conflict with the remnants of the human military. A daytime attack on the ape stronghold, however, ends in almost total defeat. As a peace offering, Caesar releases the survivors, but their leader, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), sees it as another opportunity to attack, this time at night as the apes rest. Caesar survives the attack, but only at great personal loss, setting Caesar on a Biblical course (in more ways than one): Revenge on the colonel for his losses, while sending all but his most loyal inner council to seek a new, safer homeland away from the California coast.
There’s more zig than zag on the journey (maybe too much given the slightly self-indulgent two-hour, twenty-minute running time), with Caesar and his ape contingent searching for clues to the colonel’s whereabouts in the rubble of post-apocalyptic California. On one stop, they discover a young mute girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), that Maurice (Karin Konoval), adopts as one of their own against Caesar’s wishes. Another stop leads to an encounter with Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an escapee from a long-shuttered zoo who’s spent too much alone. He’s the closest War for the Planet of the Apes comes to a comic character, but he’s no less sympathetic for providing War for the Planet of the Apes with some much-needed levity or lightness.
Eventually, director and co-writer Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Let Me In, Cloverfield) sets aside a Western-inspired travelogue filled with a fair share of spectacular scenery for a different kind of war film altogether. It’s a prison escape flick obviously inspired by The Great Escape that casts Harrelson’s anti-ape extremist as Colonel Kurtz-like figure from Apocalypse Now, as Caesar and Co work to free captured apes so they can restart their journey to a promised land of milk and honey, like the The Ten Commandments, where they can live free of human interference or intervention.
War for the Planet of the Apes caps off what promises to be the first trilogy in a long-running series in near brilliant fashion, mixing some of the strongest, multi-level character work with deep themes (xenophobia, slavery/subjugation, tribalism) and next-level visual effects. Moviegoers no longer have to look past fuzzy, under-rendered, physics-defying CGI, all the apes, from Caesar to the smallest, non-speaking role (his son, Cornelius, for one) have been elevated to near-perfect photorealistic detail. The CGI apes no longer look like they’ve been pasted into a background plate, but fully interacting with their environment, from rain to snow and everything in between. But none of that would matter without Serkis’ continually revelatory performance as the anguished, conflicted Caesar, continually struggling with twin impulses, mercy versus vengeance, compassion versus violence.
With the focus primarily on Caesar and the apes, the characters on the other side of the simian/human divide don’t fare nearly as well. While the Colonel gets the obligatory monologue explaining his rationale for starting a preventive war against the apes – basically because they’re ascendant and human aren’t anymore – he’s alone in getting more than two or three lines of dialogue. That shouldn’t be a surprise three films into a series with the word “Apes” in the title, but at times it feels like Reeves and his co-screenwriter, Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard), have tipped the scales too heavily on the simian side and left the human characters without a single redeeming quality between them.
Whatever follows next series-wise, though, it suggests the balance will eventually tip in the other direction, or at least it should. Until then, though, War for the Planet of the Apes will have to do.